What made Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart perhaps the most complete “musical package” in history—a man who created more masterpieces of virtually every musical genre of his day than any other composer before or since? There is perhaps no better way to explore this question than by studying his chamber music. Nowhere is Mozart’s maturity and mastery more apparent than in the chamber music he wrote during the last 10 years of his life.
Hear, Study, and Enjoy “A Blessing of Inconceivable Richness”
This is an opportunity to study and enjoy a variety of chamber works drawn primarily from Mozart’s “golden years” in Vienna, 1781–1791. The centerpiece of the course is the set of six Haydn string quartets that Mozart dedicated to his friend, the great Joseph Haydn. Across the span of the course, you will explore works that represent the three types of chamber music that Mozart composed:
- Any chamber group consisting, in whole or in part, of a string quartet: two violins, a viola, and a cello.
- The “piano plus” combination: works for keyboard and some other instrument or instruments.
- Everything else: combinations that employ neither a string quartet nor a piano.
Professor Robert Greenberg collectively refers to these chamber works as “a blessing of inconceivable richness.” The following are a few of the masterpieces he discusses:
- String Quartet in G Major, K. 387. The first of Mozart’s Haydn Quartets, this is a miracle of technique, taste and imagination, part-writing, and perfect proportions.
- Quintet in E-flat Major for Piano, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, and Bassoon, K. 452. This is one of the great masterworks of the chamber repertoire; as brilliant an example of instrumentation and part-writing as ever written.
- Piano Quartet in G Minor, K. 478, and Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 493. These pieces display a grandness of conception that reflects the symphony hall as much as it does the chamber music salon. They are among Professor Greenberg’s favorite pieces of music: “real desert island stuff.”
- String Quartet in C Major, K. 465. This Dissonant Quartet is the last of the Haydn Quartets. Its introduction combines so many dissonant elements that it sparked an ongoing controversy about whether the music might have been misprinted.
- Adagio in C Minor, and Rondo in C Major for Glass Harmonica Quintet, K. 617. An odd and wonderful piece, this is the last chamber music Mozart composed. Its haunting quality distinguishes it from almost anything else in Mozart’s chamber music repertoire.
Inside Mozart’s Life and Music
In The Chamber Music of Mozart, Professor Greenberg does for you what even someone as knowledgeable in music as that great composer and friend of Mozart’s, Joseph Haydn, had to do to fully appreciate Mozart’s brilliance: sit down with his music and examine it. Professor Greenberg takes you deep inside the structure of Mozart’s chamber masterworks to reveal his hand at work.
You will learn the basic language that all 18th-century composers used to write their music. In addition, you will explore the subtleties of Mozart’s technique as a composer: his ability to make art artless—music that is enormously complex and sophisticated but sounds effortless—and to know how and when to bend or break the rules of composition to create music that at times confused or even disturbed his audiences but would endure forever.
Finally, this course is a delightful blend of music analysis and appreciation, and biographical narration. Professor Greenberg covers significant aspects of Mozart’s life, from birth to death. You will shake your head in disbelief at Mozart’s unique musical talent. In the summer of 1788, in financial trouble and under pressure to make money, Mozart wrote eight major works—three symphonies, two piano trios, a piano sonatas, a string quartet, and a sonata for piano and violin—all in less than two months.
And you will smile to realize that someone as renowned as Mozart lived a life that, not infrequently, was all too human. Count Karl Joseph Felix Arco, attempting to persuade Mozart to return to his job as a court musician in Salzburg, became so frustrated at Mozart’s obstinate demands that he literally booted him out of the room.
How to Understand Mozart’s “Craft”
“Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”
—Joseph Haydn to Mozart’s father, Leopold, after hearing a performance of the B-flat Major Quartet, K. 458, in 1785.
Much of the course can be considered an exploration of this astonishing compliment, which nearly buckled Leopold Mozart’s knees. What did Haydn recognize that prompted him to declare Mozart “the greatest composer known to me” (including the great Haydn himself)? What does the phrase “the most profound knowledge of composition” mean when it comes from someone of Haydn’s musical acumen?
To understand these questions, Professor Greenberg first makes sure that you have the tools you need to appreciate Mozart’s chamber music as Haydn, or any aficionado of the time, had. He defines chamber music and explains how it was usually performed. He provides the necessary historical context: Mozart’s chamber music was music of the Classical period, which was shaped by Enlightenment thinking, and reached its zenith in the Viennese Classicism of roughly 1770 to 1800.
Then, as he will do with the other works in this course, Professor Greenberg “deconstructs” the very piece that so astonished Haydn, Mozart’s B-flat Major Quartet, also known as the Hunt Quartet for the hunting-horn character of its first theme. Playing recorded passages and demonstrating at the piano, he explains Mozart’s use of the four essential forms of Classical music: theme and variations, minuet and trio, rondo, and sonata form. These were the building blocks required to construct any genre of music during the Classical period.
In this way, you will understand Mozart’s craft: the required internal structure, or blueprint, that Mozart and all other composers were expected to follow as they created a piece of Classical chamber music.
How to Understand Mozart’s Art
Professor Greenberg’s other goal is to help you understand Mozart’s art. He shows you the details of Mozart’s technique, “where dwells both God and Mozart,” as he describes it, and which set Mozart apart from other composers.
Luckily, we are in an even better position to understand this than were Mozart’s contemporaries. Contrary to popular belief, in Mozart’s day his major works were never perceived as “Enlightenment-era easy listening.” They were widely admired, but often considered difficult, pushing the boundary of musical coherence as it was then understood.
The composer and critic Max Graf complained that Mozart “aims too high in his artful and truly beautiful compositions in order to be ‘new.’ ” The composer and violinist Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf wrote of Mozart: “I have yet to find any composer possessing such an astonishing richness of new ideas. However, I could wish that he were not so spendthrift with them.”
The early lectures will give you a conceptual and analytical vocabulary that will enable you to evaluate these criticisms, and study Mozart’s work in detail throughout the course. You will learn to recognize his inspired use of such compositional techniques as syncopation, diminution, dissonance, uneven phrasing, and unexpected changes of key. These were touches that Mozart’s contemporaries had trouble appreciating, either because they were too dazzled by his musical surfaces to examine the depth of his craft, or because they could not envision the new frontiers that his work represented.
Understanding Mozart’s art will also improve your understanding of what it takes to compose great music in general, whether it’s Classical music or another style. Mozart exemplifies the fact that good composing is not only about inventing pretty tunes, which Mozart could certainly do, but in varying, developing, and connecting thematic ideas so that, like good storytelling, they progress in a way that makes sense.
The Man Behind the Music
In many ways, Mozart’s life was also a work of art. His career, and the course of his life, didn’t simply happen by virtue of his exceptional ability. Instead, Mozart composed them, shaping them through vision, hard work, and unswerving belief in his ability.
With Professor Greenberg, you will follow the highlights and pivotal events of Mozart’s life, many of which demonstrate how Mozart took control of his destiny. At 25, determined to move to Vienna, he took the unprecedented move of writing a petition asking for permission to resign from his job under the imperious Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo, Archbishop of Salzburg. His decision to write chamber music was not only artistic, but pragmatic: Chamber music was extremely popular in Vienna, and would be easy money for someone who could compose as quickly as he. And in his mature career, he refused to simplify his music to suit popular taste. This decision hurt him financially—his piano quartets and string quintets never sold well in his day—but gave posterity a priceless collection of masterpieces.
Professor Greenberg brings Mozart’s experiences to life by reading frequently from his letters, and from first-hand accounts of those who knew him. You will find Mozart the man to be as surprising and deceptively complex as Mozart the musician. He was a passionate billiard player who was more excited at the arrival of a famous billiard star in Vienna than of a famous musician (he knew the latter would come to him, but that he would have to seek out the former). He was a composer who wrote brilliantly for any instrument but who, as a child, was frightened of the trumpet and, as an adult, hated the flute.
Although his music often soared to lofty heights, Mozart was too often given to pettiness in his personal dealings. “I can never resist making a fool of someone,” he admitted. The horn player Joseph Leutgeb, whom Mozart considered a friend and admired as a musician, was a favorite patsy. On one occasion, Mozart threw sheet music all around the room for the simple pleasure of watching Leutgeb collect it on hands and knees.
As with any discussion of Mozart’s life, you will hear accounts of his musical genius. Mozart literally composed works in his head, without writing down the notes, and could retain entire acts of an opera in his memory, note for note. He wrote relatively simple works, like opera recitatives or ballroom minuets “as if he were writing a letter,” according to his wife, Constanze. Regarding portions of his opera, Idomeneo, Mozart wrote to his father that “everything has been composed, but not yet written down.”
Often, when he was scheduled to play in an ensemble performing one of his new works, he simply skipped writing out his own part. Once, the Emperor Joseph looked over Mozart’s shoulder and was astonished to see that his sheet music was completely blank. “Where is your part?” he asked Mozart. The preoccupied composer simply tapped his forehead. “There,” he replied.
Music That Is Great by any Standard
Although he was coddled and inhibited as a child by his manipulative father, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s enormous musical ability allowed him to live his adult life in a manner that was fearless. He considered himself the equal of any man, his confidence rooted in the belief that, as Franz Liszt said of himself, “My talent ennobles me.”
At the end of this course, you will come to understand Mozart’s full impact on the chamber music genre. He changed forever the nature of the violin and piano sonata. He essentially invented the piano trio, piano quartet, and string quintet as we understand them today. His Haydn Quartets reached a range and intensity of expression that would not be achieved again until Beethoven 20 years later.
Mozart’s chamber music, Professor Greenberg asserts, is that rare music that is “great by whatever standards we choose to apply: aesthetic, technical, or intellectual.” It has left “a vision that should give us all joy and hope for our species.”
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